FROM MARCUS GARVEY TO ROBERT MUGABE - Exploring the historical purpose of three generations in modern Africa[1]

Purpose is “an ideal worth dying for”

 “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.   It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised.  But, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Nelson Mandela, at the conclusion of his Rivonia Trial speech, 20 April 1964

Personal context

When my country of birth (Kenya) became independent, I was only eleven years old: too young to be fully aware of the brutality of anti-colonial life and equally too young to be part of the early post-colonial state administrative cadres.  I was to benefit from the post-colonial state investment in education aimed at producing a future technocratic administration cadre.  When as a student activist I was drawn into liberation politics around the decolonization of Southern Africa, I got an opportunity to be part of the early post-colonial administrative cadres I had missed in my country.  That was in the 1980s.

On May 21, I was invited by the organizers of The Shift to their event because of my engagement with young innovators, and I found myself reflecting on the topic of the day (Purpose) from my generational rather than individual context.  My conclusion was around the nature of historical purposes thrust on each African generation.

Generational context

The first, Nationalist Struggle Generation, had a leadership drawn from teachers, traders, farmers, and others; and was made up of some of the most impressive orators of modern Africa. The second, Post Independence Generation, was made up of well-educated professionals, some with the theory of administration and other with hands-on administration from the colonial administration. The Post-Independence Generation invested heavily in educating its children, and these have come to constitute the Digital Generation we see today.

Nationalist Struggle Generation – with a purpose of Decolonization and Independence

Marcus Garvey was born in 1887 in Jamaica, two years after the Berlin Conference (1884-85) to carve up Africa between European States.  Garvey became a proponent of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism (articulated by the American W.E.B. Du Bois – born in 1868 – around the goal of equal rights for black people in the USA).  Garvey was convinced that black people needed to have a permanent homeland in Africa and founded a newspaper and a shipping line to pursue this goal.  One outcome of this movement for an African homeland was the convening of Pan-African Conferences to address the issues facing Africa after the Berlin Conference.  The manifesto given by Pan-African Congresses included the political and economic demands for a new world base on international cooperation. 

Four Pan African Congresses were particularly significant in the shaping of Africa today:-

1. The First Pan-African Conference of 1900 in London, barely two decades after the Berlin Conference.

2. The second Pan-African Congress of 1921 in London was soon after World War I had ended, leaving behind a nascent awareness of global inter-connectedness, even between slave, master, colonized, and the colonizer.

3. The Fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945 in Manchester at end of World War II was pivotal in turning the sense of global connectedness to an awareness of equality on the part of the colonized, whether in Africa, Asia, and every part of the world where colonial administrations existed.  This Congress became the launching pad for most liberation movements in Africa, which culminated with the Wind of Change sweeping away colonial administrations in Africa in the 1960s.

4. The Sixth Pan-African Congress of 1972 in Dar es Salaam marked the beginning of an end to Apartheid-linked colonisation – first with Mozambique and Angola in 1974 and finally with South Africa in 1994 (with Zimbababwe and Namibia in-between).

African Liberation movements led by Nationalists were to bring about independence to most African countries (starting with Ghana in 1958). 

The Nationalist Struggle Generation – one of legendary leaders – had achieved its purpose of Decolonization and Independence.  It was nevertheless a generation without the requisite skills in administration and economics; and as a generation continued to focus on politics while blaming neo-colonial forces for he failed economic policies Africa witnessed in the years after gaining independence.

Post Independence Generation – with a purpose of Socio-Economic Reconstruction

The Post-Independence Generation was handed the responsibility of transforming the Colonial State to a Developmental State capable of delivering socio-economic transformation – expanding education, health, and various economic opportunities for the largest possible number of Africans.  The post-colonial State invested heavily in education with the hope of turning out the thousands of skilled workers and managers needed by a modern state.

Finding itself in an environment of enormous economic oppportunities, but with weak governance systems often disconnected from cultural norms,  the Post Independence Generation became consumed by a culture of “get rich quick”.  Working around laws and regulations, often weakening their effectiveness and even breaking them, it became a Generation of Corruption.  The result was an Africa characterized by weak states, growing povery, and often disintegrated systems (Failed States).

When the get-rich- quick drive destroyed African societies, the Post-Independence Generation blamed the Decolonization Generation for corrupt leadership, but failed to see that corruption was first and foremost driven by the way the generation had mismanaged the state entrusted to it by the Decolonization Generation.  This Post Independence Generation all over Africa continues to display a narcissistic culture that accepts no responsibility for its failures – it is never the generation’s fault that Africa has not produced developmental states to serve its citizens.

Digital Generation- with a purpose of Global Inclusion

The Post Independence Generation invested heavily in the education of its off-springs, but without economically functional states, jobs became scarce and these highly educated youth continued to live in the world of social media and parental homes. Across Africa, this generation is faced by a crisis of living unproductive lives, and an inheritance of dysfunctional societies they got from the declining Post Independence Generation.

Faced by a collective feeling of alienation, The Digital Generation has turned to an online cyber culture – and evolved into collaborative consumerism that links young people from round the world through social media, internet, technology, and creativity.  In Africa, this Digital Generation is faced by to choices:-

To either blame the two generations: the Decolonization Generation for its sole focus on politics and the Socio-Economic Reconstruction Generation for not creating jobs; or To accept their generational purpose of leading Africa towards global inclusion by creating products that will solve Africa’s problems while stimulating global demand.

Concluding observations

Purpose needs personal commitment, and that often needs personal sacrifice.  The Nationalist Struggle Generation succeeded in its Purpose of Decolonization and Independence; the Post-Independent Generation has failed in its Purpose of Socio-Economic Reconstruction; and The Digital Generation’s Purpose of Global Inclusion is work in progress.


[1] Notes from a conversation at The Shift event, 21 May 2016, Meikles Hotel, Harare, Zimbabwe whose agenda on the day was titled “Purpose”